Poetry Day 25 – speaking of yellow: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

A recent article on nbcnews.com featured Asian-American Poets to Watch in celebration of National Poetry Month, and that’s how I was introduced to Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai’s performances.

Tsai is a spoken word poet, and her works range from a beautiful tale of Lili, an overseas “contract worker” from Philippines who works as a maid for Tsai’s aunt in Taiwan, to a message to presidential candidates about race in America called “Black, White, Whatever.”

I find her entertaining, powerful, and bold.  She speaks things that I think I have thought many times but didn’t have the words or the guts to articulate them – and I realize in a very real way what “voice” means.

As a mother, now I see the importance of having representation of all Americans in our cultural and arts media.  Recently, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the first and only African American dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. If young African-American boys and girls don’t see African-American ballet dancers performing onstage, they can’t imagine themselves becoming ballerinas.

And if young Asian boys and girls don’t see people who look like them performing poetry on stage, they couldn’t imagine themselves becoming spoken word poets.  I think it’s a well known stereotype that Asian children are pigeon-holed into certifiable careers like lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, and even an academic. And these are important works and it’s noble to serve our world in those capacities. However, I think, what hurts is when we can’t or don’t give our children access to a myriad of other fulfilling works that also serve the world – like dancers, singers, writers, artists, poets, comedians, filmmakers, actors, and so many more.

In most of what my son watches on TV or movies, no one looks like him.  When they do look like him, they have thick accents and they act silly. The other day, he got so excited when he heard a cat speaking in Korean in a show called Little Miss Pet Shop. As I sat there watching it with him, I felt a little sad for him. Even as an American boy born in the States to one parent who was also born in the States and another who has been living in the States since adolescence, he is in danger of being treated or seen as an outsider or “the other.”

I fear the day when something or someone will make him see himself differently from his friends – and my fear is not that he will see the difference but it is about how he will feel about that difference. And it’s daunting – the task of preparing him for that moment – so he can face it without bitterness or hatred or self doubt or sadness – so that he can face it with pride and understanding and hope and goodwill toward others and himself.


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